MOSCOW – Ending weeks of silence about Iraq, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that a war to force Saddam Hussein to disarm would imperil world security.
"We are for solving the problem exclusively by peaceful means," Putin said, according to the Interfax news agency.
"Any other development would be a mistake -- fraught with the toughest consequences, leading to victims and destabilization of the international situation as a whole," he said during a meeting with religious leaders from Chechnya.
It was the first time in weeks that Putin had spoken on the subject of Iraq, after a silence that led some to speculate that he might soften Russia's opposition to authorizing a U.S.-led military strike to force Saddam to destroy his banned nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs.
Earlier Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov said that the Security Council would not approve a U.S.-backed resolution opening the way to military conflict.
"As before, this draft has no chances for passage by the Security Council," Fedotov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
"We think that no additional resolutions are necessary."
Fedotov indicated that Russia supported France's call for a ministerial meeting at the U.N. Security Council to discuss the latest report by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
"This report will touch on the further program of the work of the international inspectors and will indicate their key disarmament tasks," ITAR-Tass quoted Fedotov as saying. "We hope it will still be possible to settle the situation on the basis of the U.N. Security Council resolutions and by means of further inspections."
After an emergency summit Sunday in the Azores with allies Britain, Spain and Portugal, President Bush made it clear that diplomatic efforts would end midnight Monday.
Interfax quoted the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, as saying that the United States would give Russia advance warning of the start of war, once that is decided.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, work at the Russian Embassy continued as usual, Interfax reported. The eventual evacuation of the 25 or so Russian diplomats at the embassy "is not being discussed yet," Russian news agencies reported. The embassy has everything, including an air raid shelter, needed to protect the personnel.
However, the Foreign Ministry called on Russian citizens on Monday to leave Iraq and to refrain from traveling to the country.
Provisions have been made to evacuate Russians by land via Iran if necessary.
A group of Russian Islamic and Orthodox Christian clergymen left Monday for Iraq, Interfax reported. It quoted Iraq's ambassador to Moscow, Abbas Khalaf, as saying that the delegation would meet with Iraqi officials and participate in prayers for peace.
The chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, called on the world's governments to do everything possible to avoid a war launched "without taking into account the opinion of the world community," Interfax reported.